The 5 steps of reflective practice as a professional skill in law school

5 steps of reflective practice

Reflective thinking is a professional skill. While the law school curriculum emphasises developing reflective thinking, there is very little guidance on teaching it. When we think about ‘reflection’, we have a tendency to define it as remembering something – an event, something someone did, or even something we did. That’s important. But that’s not, and cannot be, the end of the process. Reflective practice, if it is going to be useful as a professional skill, needs to have at least 5 steps. And they have to be taught explicitly.

Reflective practice is a professional skill in the law school curriculum

Reflective thinking is part of the curriculum. In Australia, it’s a skill required of all law school graduates. Threshold Learning Outcome 2 (TLO2), endorsed by the Council of Australian Law Deans, deals with ethics and professional responsibility. It requires that all Australian law school graduates demonstrate:

  • an ability to recognise and reflect upon, and a developing ability to respond to, ethical issues likely to arise in professional contexts,
  • an ability to recognise and reflect upon the professional responsibilities of lawyers in promoting justice and in service to the community…

TLO6 deals with self-management. Australian law school graduates are expected to be able to ‘reflect on and assess their own capabilities and performance, and make use of feedback as appropriate, to support personal and professional development.’

The American Bar Association’s Standards for the Approval of Law Schools includes self-evaluation as a skill for ‘competent and ethical participation in the legal profession’ in Standard 302. Self-evaluation must also feature in clinical units.

Reflective practice is part of a growth mindset

In another post, we talked about the role of feedback in developing a ‘growth mindset’. One of the ways that Catherine Christoper explains the importance of making mistakes in her article is that attorneys are always learning to do new things.

Encouraging students to review their experience, evaluate it (what they know, understand, did or should have done) and identify what steps they could take to improve their performance should be part of the feedback process.

Traditional models of learning present learning, even in everyday situations, as a cycle. And reflection plays a critical part in that. In his learning cycle model, Kolb suggested that learning is a process of ‘reflective observation’. We reflect on our actions, draw generalisations from them, and then test the new hypothesis – and the cycle begins again:

Reflective practice and learning
Kolb’s Learning Cycle – Leeds University

Reflective practice builds resilience to meet new challenges

Christopher’s reference to what attorneys do also reminds us that reflection (or self-evaluation) appears in the curriculum isn’t an accident. It is what good lawyers and attorneys do every day. In that sense, it’s not only a professional skill but a practical one as well. But it can do more for new lawyers.

Ethical challenges and dilemmas can arise suddenly and unexpectedly in legal practice. Other lawyers might apply gentle pressure to act in a particular way. Clients might demand advice that will ‘get them out of trouble’. Conduct rules provide a guide to professional conduct, but we do not always have a copy handy. They can’t deal with every possibility and only offer part of an answer to what is ‘professional conduct’. Reflection and evaluation can provide a way of resolving
new or challenging problems.

Reflective practice as a professional skill needs to have at least 5 steps

Kolb’s model provides a guide for thinking about reflective practice and learning. But in a complex professional setting and in a profession that relies on adhering to accepted conduct, it’s not enough.

Reflective practiceIn her work on reflective practise in professional development, Jenny Moon expanded on Kolb’s 4 step model. I have used this 5 step model in working with law student’s because it provides a basis to make the learning aspect of reflection explicit.

It also emphasises the need to look outside our own thinking or our own theories. It encourages law students to seek help and advice and to actively engage with feedback – things that are central to the curriculum expectations.

Step 1: Noticing

This tends to be where everyone starts – the process of remembering. We recall an event and see it as being important. In a teaching context, this often centres around feedback. But we also need to get students to think about other events that they saw as important to their ongoing professional development.

Step 2:  Making sense

This tends to be what most law students see as the process of reflection – turning over the event in our own minds. That’s incredibly important. We need to think about why the event is important and what caused it to affect us personally (especially where it might not have affected someone else).

Step 3: Making meaning

Moon explains that this is the point at which students are encouraged to make connections with the event, their thinking and connect ideas together. Law school encourages analytical and critical thinking. There is a natural fit here. But rather than evaluating a judgment, statute or policy, the focus is turned inward. Put another way, ‘Why did I respond that way?’

Step 4: Working with meaning

This is where the role of external sources of information steps in – and something that is missing from Kolb’s model.

In professional settings, it’s the opportunity for law students to check their responses against other ideas. Depending on the focus of the reflection, that might be as simple as talking to another student. But it might also mean talking to a mentor or a supervisor. It can also mean the start of a search for other sources of information or going back to the original ‘event’.

For example, in talking about ethical responsibilities, I give my students one or two commentaries on the responsibilities of lawyers – usually intentionally provocative. One of my favourite sources is a short book called Satan’s Advice to Young Lawyers. The advice in it raises some serious ethical problems. But a closer reading sometimes reveals some grains of truth – the importance of seeking a mentor and lawyers’ role in making sure the criminal justice system functions correctly.

The other contribution it makes is to prompt law students to look for alternative sources. It’s not uncommon for students to have a visceral reaction to some of the advice. But that provokes them to look for other accounts that present different perspectives. In turn, that allows them to see their reaction in the context of different approaches, building a store of experiences that they can apply later on.

Step 5: Transformative learning

This step overlaps with the previous one or can happen at the same time. By comparing and contrasting their reaction, reflection and reading with others, law students are armed with an experience that they can draw on. That’s critically important for young lawyers entering practice for the first time. But it also fits with the idea of using feedback to improve performance.

Reflective practice and learning

Reflective practice as a professional skill needs to have at least 5 steps to offer a tangible and valuable source that law students can draw on to meet new challenges. Embedded in the law school curriculum also means that it must be a learning process.

About Andrew Henderson

I am a lecturer, lawyer and researcher in Canberra with an interest in the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

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